Contributor Spotlight: Workplace Friends as Donors

Many people assume that you have to be a blood relative to donate your kidney to someone. And in the early decades of living donation, that was pretty much the case. Family members are still the largest single group of living donors, but the percentage of unrelated donors has been growing. This contributor spotlight highlights two of our book’s contributors who learned firsthand that a donor might actually be someone you know from work. (Afterward they often do feel like family.)

One of our contributors–Linda Watson–chose to donate to a colleague friend (my co-author, Betsy!). Another, Joe Reichle, instead received his kidney from a former student’s spouse.

Linda Watson and husband, Joel, on the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, DC

Linda had worked with Betsy for years before she learned how serious her friend’s health problems were. Still, as Linda relates in her chapter, like many people back in 2003 she didn’t realize that she herself could possibly be eligible to donate. But when she saw several other colleagues step up to be tested, she knew that this was what she wanted to do.

Linda explains that her decision also coincided with a time in her life when she very much needed to “do something life affirming.”

Receiving Linda’s kidney enabled Betsy to get off dialysis; produce urine once again (“I never thought I’d get so emotional about seeing a bag of urine,” Linda writes, describing her first visit to Betsy’s hospital room); and return to her position at the university full time. (About 17 years later Betsy would need another transplant–while our book was in production, in fact. Happily, she’s back to working full time again.)

Today Linda, who is in phased retirement from her work in speech and hearing sciences, clearly leads a full life. Besides gardening; traveling with her husband, Joel, albeit limited by COVID; singing in the choir and participating in other activities at her church, she recently tried her hand at voice lessons. She looks forward to traveling more extensively as the pandemic eases.

Joe Reichle has polycystic kidney disease, like many in his family, several of whom died relatively young. He begins his chapter by explaining that as a young man, he’d always figured that that would be his fate too. Instead, Joe, a retired university professor in the Midwest, led a normal adult life for 30+ years before the word transplant ever surfaced.

When Joe learned that the wait for a deceased donor kidney could be five years, he considered a live-kidney transplant in the hope of getting a kidney before he needed dialysis: a preemptive transplant. Knowing too that a living donation typically has a better outcome, he reluctantly let it be known that he needed a transplant (“I’m a person who doesn’t like to ask for things”). Joe relates in his chapter how surprised and moved he was to see colleagues and former colleagues seek him out, wanting to donate to him.

Many would-be donors were eliminated, and when a former student volunteered but later became pregnant, her husband fortunately volunteered to donate in her stead. Since his transplant, Joe says, despite other health issues, “for the most part, my health has been very good.”

He and his wife enjoy a comparatively quiet life in northwestern Michigan on East Grand Traverse Bay, where they enjoy photographing the wildlife, which includes bald eagles, red foxes, deer, chipmunks, raccoons, and the occasional bobcat.

They are less sedentary, he says, since the arrival of a lively two-year-old weimaraner-lab mix, named Rosie, who enjoys the water. Joe also still “dabbles” in intervention research for children with communication delays.

Even though Joe’s donor, Robert Drager, and family live far away in Pennsylvania, the two families often shared special occasions in the first several years and have stayed in touch.

Nearly 20 years post transplant, Joe has some words of advice to anyone considering a transplant, which he calls “one of the best decisions that I have made. Your quality of life will be significantly enhanced,” he says. And, as for your family, “they will spend less time worrying about you.”

We think those are both awfully good reasons.

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

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